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Sugar review – Colin Farrell’s private detective drama is a disaster
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Sugar review – Colin Farrell’s private detective drama is a disaster

It is a truth commonly acknowledged that neo-noir has been a tricky proposition ever since LA Confidential showed us its platonic ideal back in 1997. More than a quarter of a century later, the makers of Apple TV+’s new contribution to the genre think they have found a way to mark its place in history. We’ll come back to that, because I’m yet to reconcile my furious reaction to the narrative tactics employed therein.

We begin simply enough (and, appropriately, in black and white). In Tokyo, hard-boiled private investigator John Sugar (Colin Farrell) is in the process of rescuing – by means of street smarts, and a reluctant but effective amount of violence, incurring minimal damage to his suit – the kidnapped offspring of a Yakuza boss. Upon receipt of the traditional brown envelope, he returns to the US and his boss, Ruby (Kirby, formerly known as Kirby Howell-Baptiste), informing her that he has illicitly picked up another job on the way. Sugar has been contacted by movie producer Jonathan Siegel (James Cromwell – who, in a series that makes intertextuality an art form, was also in LA Confidential) to find his missing granddaughter, Olivia (Sydney Chandler – no relation to Raymond, but in keeping with the mood of the thing). Her father, Bernie (Dennis Boutsikaris), and half-brother, David (Nathan Corddry), think she has gone on a bender after two years of sobriety. Would that things were so simple.

LA Confidential, this is not … Colin Farrell and James Cromwell in Apple TV+’s Sugar.View image in fullscreen

Fortunately, our gumshoe hero believes in a grandfather’s instincts (as a movie buff, he is is delighted to take the case anyway; while Olivia reminds him of “Jen”, whose identity we will learn later). Despite Ruby’s wish for him to take a holiday, Sugar is soon embroiled in an ever-murkier world involving disappearing bodies in car boots, nude photographs of Olivia’s mother hidden in her apartment, exchanges over whisky in bars and beautiful residences, and more echoes of The Big Sleep than you can shake a tumbler of ice at. The introduction of crimes such as people trafficking, and the adult proclivities of former child star David (non-disclosure agreements strewn like confetti over the women unlucky enough to work with him), bring things up to date.

Sugar forms a bond with Olivia’s stepmother, former rock star and recovering alcoholic Melanie (Amy Ryan), but she’s not telling him everything she knows, fascinated though she is by his kindness to homeless people, a gentlemanly refusal to sleep with her while she’s inebriated, and the fact that he himself cannot get drunk. His body processes alcohol 50 times faster than normal, he tells her. Is this a writerly attempt to add interest to a so-far derivative and underdeveloped character? Or something more? Perhaps to do with the double vision, muscle spasms, catatonia and mystery injections he self-administers in his hotel room?

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James Cromwell as Jonathan Siegel in Sugar. View image in fullscreen

Voiceovers à la Philip Marlowe abound, as Sugar chases leads around town in his vintage Corvette. Chandler-esque, however, they are not. “All this violence … I’ve been doing this so long now I’ve almost come to expect it,” runs a typical thought. It’s no “A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window”, and the rest of the script is barely more than serviceable. The performances – especially from Farrell, Ryan and later Eric Lange as the effortlessly terrifying villain, Stallings – carry it. At least until the twist. Which would also make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window, though not for quite the same reasons.

Obviously I can’t tell you what it is. But it comes after the halfway point, which is too deep into the story to work, narratively speaking, and unfair on what I suspect will be the many viewers who object to it. And I haven’t been so snortingly contemptuous of a reveal since Behind Her Eyes, which I still haven’t forgiven anyone for (and probably never will).

But your mileage may vary. If it adds something to the experience for you, then you are more generous than I – who thinks this kind of thing should be stamped on immediately, and stamped on hard. It’s a cheat. It’s an unearned way to grab attention and get a gasp out of an audience, and you can bet that wherever one series is allowed to get away with such a cheap shot, others will follow in droves and we will all be the poorer. Sugar could have been – especially with a little script-polishing – at least an honourable addition to the genre. As it is, it’s nothing at all.

  • Sugar is on Apple TV+

Source: theguardian.com